Last year, thanks to a photo essay by architecture photographer Iwan Baan featured in the New York Magazine, the world became aware of a dramatic urban context in Caracas, Venezuela, the result of a lack of available housing: The Torre David (David Tower). The tower, built as the headquarters of the Confinanzas Group during the economic boom of the 90s, was left unfinished after the company went bankrupt in 1994, placing the building in a murky legal void where its ownership was put into question. Since 2000, the tower has suffered looting and decay; the public take-over culminated with the occupation of the tower by more than 2,500 people in 2007.
For over a year, Urban-Think Tank studied how the tower’s mixed-use occupation worked, with improvised apartments, shops, and even a gym on the terrace. The community operates under the strict rules imposed by the informal tenants, who have been accused by many Venezuelans of being nothing more than criminals.
Invited by curator Justin McGuirk, Urban-Think Tank recreated ‘Gran Horizonte’, a restaurant in the Torre de David, at the Arsenale of the Venice Biennale. The restaurant serves the same traditional food as the original, while photos by Iwan Baan reveals tenants’ day-to-day lives, immersing visitors into the tower.
The installation explores how the informal settlement works in ways the building’s architect never would have conceived, and posits that the informal dynamics found in emerging countries could serve as a vital source of innovation and experimentation for urban problems in our hyper-urbanized world.
The project has been highly controversial among the Venezuelan architecture community, as shown by the letters and articles in local newspapers reproduced at the installation, and on the Internet. Most of these letters’ authors claim that the project supports the illegal occupation and depicts a distorted image of Venezuela’s reality. But, on the other hand, the Venezuela Pavilion at the Biennale showed only cheerful paintings and images of propaganda, avoiding its purpose: to critically observe and stir debate. The controversy between the two visions only further highlights the current polarity in Venezuelan society, particularly on this issue of urbanization.
More from the architects after the break:
This temporary restaurant creates a vibrant, Venezuelan social space in the hushed, high-art context of the Corderie. It is a piece of Caracas -a piece of the economic south- but also common ground. Food acts as a social leveller: sharing a near is the most convivial way to exchange ideas. The project draws on Urban-Think Tank’s extensive research into the Torre Confinanzas, known as the Torre de David, which is also presented here. This unfinished forty-five-story skyscraper, built as a banking headquarters in Caracas in the 1990s, has been squatted and is now a “vertical slum” and a vibrant community, containing improvised shops and restaurants. Here, the Torre de David stands as a symbol of neoliberal failure and of the poor’s self-empowerment. With its magnificent deficiencies, it represents an opportunity to reconsider how we create and foster urban communities. The fictional replica restaurant presented here is symbolic of self-determination and acts as a meeting place for visitors, where they can eat, drink, and generally taste South America. It is built out of appropriately humble materials, with a working kitchen and an authentic Venezuelan menu.
As part of this mise en scène, there is a series of photographs taken by Iwan Baan at the Torre de David. As in all Latin American street-food stalls and cheap restaurants, there are TVs in the corners of the room. These will show a series of short films about the tower created by Urban-Think Tank. These include footage of a community meeting where residents discuss their occupation as belonging to a tradition of the commons that predates the Conquistadors. The restaurant, entitled Gran Horizonte, is named after an actual restaurant in Caracas. This “grand horizon” is also a reference to the global south, which is always looking towards a political equator, beyond which lies the economic north.
Research Project Team: Michael Contento, Susana García, Kaspar Helfrich, Rafael Machado, Ilana Millner, Jose Antonio Nuñes, Mathieu Quilici, Daniel Schwartz, Frederic Schwarz, Lindsey Sherman, Alexandra Zervudachi.
Collaborators: Iwan Baan, Lars Müller Publishers.
With the additional support of: ETH Zürich D-ARCH, Schindler Aufzüge AF Group, Menuiserie Roth SA, Pictet & Cie, Driade, kt.COLOR AG die Fabmanufaktur.
Special thanks to: Residents of La Torre David, Jimeno Fonseca (ITA, ETH), Yona Friedman, Paul Friedli (Schindler Aufzüge AG), Antonio Garces, Marva Griffin, Andres Lepik, Sacha Menz (Dean at ETH D-ARCH), Vivian Pedroni, Arno Schlueter (ITA, ETH), Christian Schmid, Kilian Schuster (Schindler Aufzüge AG), Katrin Trautwein and Klaus Nadler.